Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Drowned Life by Jeffrey Ford

As I attempted to begin this review for the past few days, I was at a loss on how to situate myself within the work of Jeffrey Ford or how to situate his work within my life. I only knew him as a fantasy author, a genre that I care little to nothing for, so the fact that I even listened to an interview with him on the Bat Segundo show is surprising enough. That I was persuaded to seek out some of his non-fantasy work is even a little more unlikely, and that I enjoyed his new short story collection The Drowned Life as much as I did highly improbable.

That’s not to say that I thought it was a great collection; it’s not. There are a number of fantasy-laced tales involving manticores and other bizarre scenarios that I found hard to make much of. The title story involves a m
an who drowns, finding that an entire world exists among the people who have met their fate in such a way, yet finds communication with the world above possible. While this situation is not without interest, I never felt any real emotional connection with the protagonist.

Where Ford shines is in stories that lack a fantastical element. “The Bedroom Light” begins with a couple lying in bed and gossiping about the neighbors, while avoiding the elephant in the room: the woman’s recent miscarriage. The emotion crackles on the page, the dialogue and description equally well done. Yet the narrative goes on a few ages too many, and a enlightening conclusion for the reader seems forced. This happens again and again in Ford’s better stories: plot seems forced upon us, epiphanies feel false and/or unnecessary.

The best piece might be “The Scribble Mind,” in which a young acquaintance of the narrator tells him that she’s discovered a scribble that appears in all sorts of places that she believes is a symbol of those who can remember their time in the womb. As she tries to get closer and closer to the secret, sinister forces seem to move against the couple, as she slowly drives herself near insane trying to duplicate the scribble herself. This oddball premise reminded me of Ted Chiang or Jonathan Lethem, though perhaps not as skilled as either.

Ford studied with John Gardner, so I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that I enjoyed this collection, nor that the epiphianic endings are omnipresent. The fact that plot slips into these situations in a seemingly unnatural sense is likely more the cause of my own biases than anything else. But it seems to me that Ford is like a Triple A baseball player. He can do a lot of things well, but he can’t hit the curve ball. The characterization is there, the situation is there, even the prose is decent. But he can’t seem to put it all together and make it to the show.

The Drowned Life has some good stories, and it has some bad ones. I hope in the future Ford can put it all together and write a really great piece of fiction.


Brendan Moody said...

Ford is a big deal in genre circles, and yet I must say I've never felt much interest in any of the stories of his that I've read.* He's one of those writers that make me go "That was it? So what?" I must not be on the right wavelength to recognize the deep beauty and meaning that others find in his work. (Seriously, Google him and see the praise.) I keep meaning to read a collection of his and see if collective effect helps, as it so often does, but I'm not feeling the urge so far.

*"The Bedroom Light," "The Night Whiskey," and "The Trentino Kid."

Jon Polk said...

As someone who is usually not too fond of genre, i must admit that my reasons are often based on the quality of the prose and of the characters presented. I find it unsurprising that Ford is praised in the genre community b/c I find his work in these areas to be better than the average.

That said, I often felt myself saying 'So what?' Not to strain my minor league baseball analogy, but it seemed like he had decent tools, just not enough of any one or two to really achieve real success.

Of the first two stories you mention, both were more traditional entries in this collection. Perhaps you might enjoy some of the more fantastical pieces more than I, so this might be an ideal sampling for you.